Ten years since the launch of combat operations in Afghanistan, the US is at a critical juncture.
On the positive side, al-Qaeda sanctuaries have been destroyed and the democratic government continues to cooperate, albeit unevenly, with the international community to deal with all the security, economic and human rights challenges Kabul faces.
Yet victory over the Taliban and its affiliates is still not imminent. The insurgency persists, derailing a political settlement and jeopardising the progress made.
In response to the US military surge into the heart of the Taliban’s strongholds, the Taliban has adapted with a string of high-profile assassinations targeted at senior Afghan officials — most recently Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was in charge of peace talks.
There are a number of reasons that the insurgency has gained steam over the past five years. Errors by the US and Afghan governments are partly to blame. Civilian casualties, flagging reconstruction efforts, widespread official corruption, and Kabul’s weakness in enforcing the rule of law have left a good deal of the population disillusioned.
But there is a more important factor: Pakistani aid and support for the insurgency across its border.
The US took an aggressive approach from the outset; it recognised the importance of Islamabad in the Afghanistan equation, seeing the conflict as part of a web of ‘Af-Pak’ issues. And unilateral operations like the Navy SEALs’ killing of Osama bin Laden and also drone strikes in Pakistan have netted key terrorists and disrupted insurgent sanctuaries.
Yet even this new offensive has not created the absolutely necessary break between Pakistan’s military and intelligence services and the insurgency in Afghanistan.
Worse still, no one knows Islamabad’s true intentions. In talks with US and Afghan officials, the Pakistanis offer up implausible denials of the government’s complicity in the insurgency. And this renders talks virtually useless.
Last week, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen announced that the Pakistani intelligence service played a role in the September 13 attack on America’s embassy in Kabul. In reality the Pakistani government itself may be divided.
Some relatively moderate civilian leaders may view backing the Taliban as a defensive move to secure a friendly regime in Kabul — and to counter Indian influence as the US withdraws; geopolitical ambitions or Islamist beliefs among members of the security services may be pursuing a more expansive goal of building a Pakistani empire in Central Asia.
At this point, continued Pakistani support for the Taliban and other extremists could well deal America a major strategic blow. Washington needs Islamabad to change its behaviour — and change it now.
This means engaging in hardheaded diplomacy. On the one hand, Islamabad should be included in peace talks with the Taliban. When it’s excluded, Pakistan prevents the Taliban from pursuing a settlement — even threatening Taliban leaders who meet and negotiate with American and Afghan leaders.
Clearly this has to change. All three countries must be involved. And if the Taliban refuses to enter into a dialogue, Pakistan should be expected to move against insurgent sanctuaries.
On the other hand, if Pakistan fails to cooperate, Washington must cut off assistance to its military and intelligence services; bolster Pakistani civil society and civilian institutions; increase cross-border attacks against insurgent targets; and get backing from a whole host of states to bring pressure to bear on Islamabad — isolating or containing it if necessary.
Even as the US draws down forces, it has the leverage necessary to succeed. Let it not have a decade of effort go to waste now. Inducing Pakistan to cooperate will be the difference between victory and defeat.
(Zalmay Khalilzad is former US ambassador to Afghanistan. The views expressed by the author are personal)
© Newsweek/Daily Beast